Greek tragedy humanizes warfare

Students Sean Keller '16 and Michael Moore '15, along with actors Heidi Schrck and Louis Cancelmi, performed a dramatic reading of Sophocles' Ajax in "Theater of War," in order to highlight the struggles soldiers face in war. Photo by: Alec Ferretti.
Students Sean Keller '16 and Michael Moore '15, along with actors Heidi Schrck and Louis Cancelmi, performed a dramatic reading of Sophocles' Ajax in "Theater of War," in order to highlight the struggles soldiers face in war. Photo by: Alec Ferretti.
Students Sean Keller ’16 and Michael Moore ’15, along with actors Heidi Schrck and Louis Cancelmi, performed a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Ajax in “Theater of War,” in order to highlight the struggles soldiers face in war. Photo by: Alec Ferretti.

One Sunday, Nov. 3, the Chapel breathed with the life of ancient Greek theatre. “Theater of War,” a group dedicated to drawing attention to issues surrounding soldiers returning from war through the art of performance, staged a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ 2,500 year old tragedy, Ajax. But unlike most theatrical pieces, for “Theater of War,” the script only accounted for a small fraction of the dialogue. The dramatic reading facilitated a conversation about war, specifically the struggles of psychological injury, between a mix of veterans and civilians.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Greek and Roman Studies Curtis Dozier organized the 233rd performance of “Theater of War” in collaboration with Creative Director Bryan Doerries and his company, Outside the Wire. The cast performed two selected scenes from Ajax, which preceded a panel discussion and Q&A. The cast, which consisted of two actors from Outside the Wire, Louis Cancelmi and Heidi Schreck, and two Vassar students, Sean Keller ’16 and Michael Moore ’15, performed the dramatic reading.

In an emailed statement, Keller described his experience working with Doerries and the professional actors from Outside the Wire. He wrote, “[Doerries] welcomed us immediately, saw how invested in the story we all were going into it, and that was that. And I think having experienced actors read the two main roles of Ajax and Tecmessa was essential to bring out the sheer intensity of the play. Because if the audience can’t see the raw energy of these characters who are supposed to mirror their own struggles, then they won’t open up and tell their own stories.”

One of the project’s primary aims is to deepen understanding of psychological injury associated with war and clarify the reality behind the stigmas that surround conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. The story of Ajax illuminates the timeless truth about these psychiatric experiences. Doerries said, “I believe that ancient Greek drama was a public health tool that was designed by the Athenian military more than 2,500 years ago doing the same thing we’re trying to do with it now.” He also emphasized that this piece is not meant to be entertainment. Of the piece’s aim, he said, [I want the show to] create a shared sense of discomfort.” Doerries said he often gives to his actors one piece of advice before the performance: “Make them wish they’d never come.”

“Theater of War” has traveled to many military bases and schools, as well as homeless shelters and even the Pentagon. As Dean of Faculty Jon Chennette mentioned in his opening remarks, the piece’s presence at Vassar coincides with two of the college’s initiatives to strengthen military-civilian relations—the Vassar-West Point Initiative, and the partnership with the Posse Foundation’s Veterans Posse Program.

In addition to the reading, the panel acted as a forum to discuss the trauma those who serve in the military may face. The panelists were made up of war veterans and scholars of the Posse Program Jonathan D. Wood ’17 and Anuradha Datta ’17, daughter of a veteran Lesli Vaughan ’14 and Clinical Psychologist Specializing in Veteran Support, Dr. Lori Arella.

Keller noted the importance of the panel. He wrote, “The panel helps people in the audience who are dealing with PTSD and trauma to see that they’re not alone across space, and the performance helps them see that they’re not alone across time…Every former service member who spoke had a different take on the play, and on PTSD, and on the military, which would not have been heard if this event hadn’t drawn people out of their comfort zones.”

Another aspect of the project is its integration of art, academia and experience. Everyone who participates in “Theater of War” offers a unique lens through which these issues can be understood. Chennette brought attention to the relevance of this piece to Vassar’s educational mission, saying, “In our attempt to cultivate the capacity to see through the eyes of others, we strive to put what we learn in that process into action.” In his introduction, Dozier discussed the importance of the interplay between academia and emotional understanding. He said, “This is the aim of an education in the humanities—to humanize us.”

Keller concluded, “The way the veterans in the audience and on the panel spoke about the military was really eye-opening for me. One veteran on the panel was almost in tears by the end of his opening remarks. It’s rare to see that kind of honesty in a public forum coming from people who ordinarily would be loath to talk about their terrible experiences. It’s even rarer to see an ancient Greek tragedy evoke that kind of response. It really speaks to how interconnected Greek tragedy and veterans issues are—then and now, it’s a kind of therapy.”

One Comment

  1. Thanks to reporters Youngblood and Gonzalez for a fine article. While I was not there, I’d been alerted that this event was to take place and the story here made me feel the intensity of the performance and discussion and the impact of the experience on panelists and audience. What a great collaboration between the school and Outside the Wire.

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